Will Warburton by George Gissing
She was gone, and Warburton stood biting his lips. Had he shaken hands with her? Had he said good-night? He could not be sure. Nothing was present to him but a sense of gawkish confusion, following on a wild impulse which both ashamed and alarmed him, he stood in a bumpkin attitude, biting his lips.
A hansom came crawling by, and the driver called his attention-- "Keb, sir?" At once he stepped forward, sprang on to the footboard, and--stood there looking foolish.
"Where to, sir?"
"That's just what I can't tell you," he answered with a laugh. "I want to go to somebody's house, but don't know the address."
"Could you find it in the Directory, sir? They've got one at the corner."
The cab keeping alongside with him, he walked to the public-house, and there, midway in whisky-and-soda, looked up in the great red volume the name of Strangwyn. There it was,--a house in Kensington Gore. He jumped into the hansom, and, as he was driven down Park Lane, he felt that he had enjoyed nothing so much for a long time; it was the child's delight in "having a ride"; the air blew deliciously on his cheeks, and the trotting clap of the horse's hoofs, the jingle of the bells, aided his exhilaration. And when the driver pulled up, it was with an extraordinary gaiety that Will paid him and shouted good-night.
He approached the door of Mr. Strangwyn's dwelling. Some one was at that moment turning away from it, and, as they glanced at each other, a cry of recognition broke from both.
"Coming to make inquiry?" asked Sherwood. "I've just been doing the same thing."
"No better, no worse. But that means, of course, nearer the end."
"Queer we should meet," said Warburton. "This is the first time I've been here."
"I can quite understand your impatience. It seems an extraordinary case; the poor old man, by every rule, ought to have died weeks ago. Which way are you walking?"
Will answered that he did not care, that he would accompany Sherwood.
"Let us walk as far as Hyde Park Corner, then," said Godfrey. "Delighted to have a talk with you." He slipped a friendly hand under his companion's arm. "Why don't you come, Will, and make friends with Milligan? He's a splendid fellow; you couldn't help taking to him. We are getting on gloriously with our work. For the first time in my life I feel as if I had something to do that's really worth doing. I tell you this scheme of ours has inconceivable importance; it may have results such as one dare not talk about."
"But how long will it be before you really make a start?" asked Warburton, with more interest than he had yet shown in this matter.
"I can't quite say--can't quite say. The details are of course full of difficulty--the thing wouldn't be worth much if they were not. One of Milligan's best points is, that he's a thoroughly practical man--thoroughly practical man. It's no commercial enterprise we're about, but, if it's to succeed, it must be started on sound principles. I'd give anything if I could persuade you to join us, old fellow. You and your mother and sister--you're just the kind of people we want. Think what a grand thing it will be to give a new start to civilisation! Doesn't it touch you?"
Warburton was mute, and, taking this for a sign of the impressionable moment, Sherwood talked on, ardently, lyrically, until Hyde Park Corner was reached.
"Think it over, Will. We shall have you yet; I know we shall. Come and see Milligan."
They parted with a warm hand-grip, and Warburton turned toward Fulham Road.
When Warburton entered the shop the next morning, Allchin was on the lookout for him.
"I want to speak to you, sir," he said, "about this golden syrup we've had from Rowbottom's--"
Will listened, or seemed to listen, smiling at vacancy. To whatever Allchin proposed, he gave his assent, and in the afternoon, without daring to say a word he stole into freedom.
He was once more within sight of Albert Bridge. He walked or prowled --for half an hour close about Oakley Crescent. Then, over the bridge and into the Park. Back again, and more prowling. At last, weary and worn, to the counter and apron, and Allchin's talk about golden syrup.
The next day, just before sunset, he sauntered on the Embankment. He lifted up his eyes, and there, walking towards him, came the slim figure in grey.
"Not like the other evening," said Rosamund, before he could speak, her eyes turning to the dull, featureless west.
He held her hand, until she gently drew it away, and then was frightened to find that he had held it so long. From head to foot, he quivered, deliciously, painfully. His tongue suffered a semi-paralysis, so that, trying to talk, he babbled--something about the sweetness of the air--a scent from the gardens across the river--
"I've had a letter from Bertha Cross," said his companion, as she walked slowly on. "She comes home to-morrow."
"Bertha Cross--? Ah, yes, your friend--"
The name sounded to Warburton as if from a remote past. He repeated it several times to himself.
They stood with face turned toward the lurid south. The air was very still. From away down the river sounded the bells of Lambeth Church, their volleying clang softened by distance to a monotonous refrain, drearily at one with the sadness of the falling night. Warburton heard them, yet heard them not; all external sounds blended with that within him, which was the furious beating of his heart. He moved a hand as if to touch Rosamund's, but let it fall as she spoke.
"I'm afraid I must go. It's really raining--"
Neither had an umbrella. Big drops were beginning to splash on the pavement. Warburton felt one upon his nose.
"To-morrow," he uttered thickly, his tongue hot and dry, his lips quivering.
"Yes, if it's fine," replied Rosamund.
"Early in the afternoon?"
"I can't. I must go and see Bertha."
They were walking at a quick step, and already getting wet.
"At this hour then," panted Will.
Lambeth bells were lost amid a hollow boom of distant thunder.
"I must run," cried Rosamund. "Good-bye."
He followed, keeping her in sight until she entered the house. Then he turned and walked like a madman through the hissing rain-- walked he knew not whither--his being a mere erratic chaos, a symbol of Nature's prime impulse whirling amid London's multitudes.